The blame for the OSPP’s failure lies mostly with GOP and allies in WILL

Last week, after Dr. Demond Means resigned his position as Commissioner of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), I lamented the news and pronounced the result a five-alarm dumpster fire. I believed and had argued strongly that, under a bad law, Means was the best chance the Milwaukee Public Schools had of surviving relatively unscathed. His departure, I said, would lead to much worse down the road.

We didn’t get far down the road before Republicans proved me right. Within 24 hours of Means’ resignation, GOP leaders threatened MPS with everything from breaking it up into smaller districts to choking off state funds. Authors of the OSPP plan expressed histrionic anger and threatened to extort MPS unless their very specific version of “reform” is implemented.

However, these Republicans – especially GOP leadership like Senator Scott Fitzgerald, who was first to suggest cuts to MPS funding – should look to their own house to get it in order first before coming after MPS and Milwaukee’s children.

This is because I believe the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and spurred Means’s resignation came not from MPS or its union (MTEA), but from a conservative, Republican-allied legal group whose mission seems to be destroying MPS at all costs.

To be clear, I do not hold MPS, its leadership, its board or MTEA blameless for what happened. Had those people – my friends and colleagues – accepted the reality that Means was genuinely interested in working with MPS and protecting our students, families, teachers, facilities and funding, then at this moment when the Republicans are levying dramatic and dangerous threats, we could be presenting a united Milwaukee against their divisive attacks.

Instead, the rejection of Means’s plan and the constant attacks on him personally and professionally have enabled the Republicans’ agenda and opened up MPS to these further threats.

But the timing of Means’ resignation coincides not with union-led protests or with MPS’s slow-walked counterproposal, but with the specific threat of major litigation against Means personally for taking a cooperative approach to the OSPP rather than a competitive one.

This suit was threatened by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a group named in true Orwellian fashion whose goal has little to do with law or liberty and everything to do with gutting public institutions across the state.

I wrote about WILL recently for the Bay View Compass, where I predicted that given the way the OSPP-MPS discussions were heading, even if Means and MPS had come to an amicable agreement, WILL would inevitably set out to destroy it.

WILL has been representing Milwaukee’s private voucher schools for years: They represented St. Marcus in its attempts to secure the former Malcolm X Academy for an expansion, for example, and they were the legal driving force behind the City of Milwaukee’s recent reluctant surrender of vacant MPS buildings to non-MPS schools.

I noted that, as far back as early March of this year, WILL was posting implied legal threats against Means to its website, as they disapproved of Means’s stated desire to help, rather than hurt, MPS with his work on the OSPP.

“The law does not give the (Means) the power or duty to be an ‘ally’ or ‘partner’ to MPS,” they wrote. As I noted in the Compass, they did not say that they had briefs ready to file, but their “Will he follow the law?” conclusion was about as subtle as a baseball bat to the face: Any cooperation between Means and MPS would result in a lawsuit.

Again, consider the timeline: Since Means’ appointment in November of last year, personal and professional attacks on him have been relentless. He has been protested at community listening sessions; he has been brutally insulted online and in person. A school board meeting of the Mequon-Thiensville school district, where Means serves as superintendent, was interrupted by protestors from Milwaukee, even.

In the middle of it all was an election for Milwaukee County Executive where Chris Abele, who appointed Means and has the authority to appoint his replacement now, went up against State Senator Chris Larson, who unequivocally stated he would not implement the OSPP at all. Means became a kind of political soccer ball, kicked around by both sides in a campaign that ultimately saw Abele re-elected.

Means presented a plan in April post-election, the MPS administration presented an alternative in mid-June and the two sides met on June 23 to see where compromise could be made. Nothing was decided then, but both Means and MPS left that June 23 meeting saying there would be more discussion to come. Abele was quoted as saying that he and Means would look at the feasibility of adopting the MPS counterproposal, for example.

I could not determine if there was actually another meeting scheduled or just the promise of more: In an interview with Means Friday, where he was with State Superintendent Tony Evers at a national education conference, Means declined to elaborate on what he said in his initial resignation statement. A query to MPS was not returned over the holiday weekend, unsurprisingly, though their post-resignation statement included the sentence, “We are surprised by today’s news.” Regardless, as of June 23, both sides in the process said that discussions would continue and a search for common ground would, they hoped, be fruitful.

Means’ resignation statement came a week later, on June 29. What happened in the interim to change the situation from “We’re still working on it” to “Sorry folks, I’m out”?

This happened – a press release from WILL on June 28 that now did explicitly threaten Means with a lawsuit. WILL said the MPS counterproposal “would satisfy none of the four obligations imposed upon (Means) by Wisconsin law.”

And then the threat: “Agreeing to such a plan may expose Commissioner Means to litigation from a taxpayer, a parent or any of the potential operators contemplated by the statute to assist on the turn-around plan.” I don’t doubt for a second that WILL already has someone – maybe St. Marcus again, one of those “potential operators” – ready to sign on to such a lawsuit.

The very next day Means tendered his resignation.

MTEA claimed victory, of course, and all the Republicans blamed MPS and MTEA for what went down. Plan author Rep. Dale Kooyenga, for example, told Fox 6, “Essentially the Milwaukee Public Schools status quo chewed (Means) up and spit him out and said, ‘No, we don’t want to make changes.'”

Clearly, this is false. The MPS status quo and MTEA didn’t force Means out because they refused to change. If that were true, Means would have resigned months earlier. MTEA couldn’t bully Means into leaving with its attacks and refusal to take the seat at the table Means offered them; MPS didn’t wear Means down with its delays and counterproposal.

Instead, WILL forced Means out because they threatened his personal and professional reputation and livelihood.

I asked Means about that when I interviewed him Friday. As noted, he directed me back to his original statement. “My statement captures what were the catalysts” for his departure, he told me, and added that he wanted to go out “with dignity and not point fingers” even though “the things I endured the last seven months have been tough on me personally.”

But he added, “It’s clear that the imminent threat of a WILL lawsuit was another factor.”

After all, Means is not done in education. He’s young and superintendent of a successful, but small, suburban district. With a profile like his – again, he’s attending national conferences as a guest of Evers – his star can rise significantly higher. A lawsuit in his past, whether he wins or not, might give future employers reason to pause. This is as opposed to working cooperatively with a struggling urban district to bring additional resources and, hopefully, success, which could open doors for Means in urban districts around the country seeking qualified leaders.

What I’m getting at is this: The victory laps by MTEA are unearned, for one thing, though they sure are getting some strong national attention.

For another, the threats from Republicans against MPS must stop. From the beginning, the OSPP was engineered to fail not only because it wrested local control away from the democratically elected Milwaukee Board of School Directors, or because it was unfunded in a district and city that is already starved for resources. It failed because the GOP’s allies in WILL threatened the livelihood of a good man with good intentions and deep love for the city of his birth and its schoolchildren.

Alberta Darling, Dale Kooyenga, Scott Fitzgerald: If you want someone to blame for Means’ departure, look in the mirror. If you want things in MPS to truly improve, empower us to do it and muzzle your legal attack dogs in WILL.

Anything else will be taken as a sure sign that the last thing you care about is Milwaukee’s children, and confirm once and for all that this is instead about appeasing the school voucher lobby and stealing public property and legal, democratic authority from the taxpayers and families of Milwaukee.

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